How I found hope in the urban decay of a mill town.
By Joshua Bodwell
I grew up in Kennebunkport, just a few blocks from the idyllic seaside village’s Dock Square. Back then, the town had a working-class quality to it. There was a market and a hardware store on the square — each of them dying for a good paint job — and the bustling but decaying boatyard just across the river was still in full swing.
But compared to Biddeford, where I have chosen to live today, Kennebunkport was anything but rough around the edges. Kennebunkport has a few crusty old salts that give it character, but Biddeford is home to multiple generations of mill workers disenfranchised by the beleaguered textile industry. I may be a multi-generational Mainer, but to a Biddeford native, a Kennebunkporter might as well be from Manhattan.
My move to Biddeford nearly two years ago is the same old story: boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy follows girl.
That “girl” is Tammy Ackerman. We work out of the ground-floor studio in a bright orange, three-story concrete building off Main Street. Built in 1923, the building once housed the textiles workers’ union hall. Today, Tammy owns it, and we live on the third floor.
For more than a year, Tammy and I lived in a 1,400-square-foot loft in the North Dam Mill, a rehabilitated textile factory that stands over the Saco River. From the fifth floor, we could see a handful of church spires dotting the skyline like exclamation points on Biddeford’s rich but waning Catholic history. We could make out the John Calvin Stevens-designed golden dome of City Hall. Even if Tammy and I, a designer and a writer, represent the emerging “gentrification” of this former industrial town, we both have deep respect for its roots.
When WestPoint Home, Biddeford’s last textile mill, shut down in June of 2009, it was heartbreaking to see the last 121 employees laid off. But in the industry’s heyday, 12,000 people, many of them generations of French-Canadians, worked in these mills.
Those ghosts of the mills don’t haunt me — they inspire me.
When I walk an old mill staircase and feel the worn, cupped-out treads beneath my feet, I feel blessed to live in this era of relative ease. Unlike a third-shift mill worker, when I scan the bricks, windows, and granite lintels of these buildings, there is something peaceful about the repetition. I love the kinetic energy in the slant and cacophony of rooflines, and the echoes ricocheting among the brick walls. In the river below the mills — which was once polluted, it seemed, beyond hope — I have watched inky cormorants stalk fish, perching atop jumbles of fallen granite as they wait to strike.
Like so many Maine towns that share a river border, Biddeford and Saco have a complicated relationship. After all these years, Saco still feels like the mill owner’s side of the river, while Biddeford remains the worker’s side. This city of 22,000 has never lost touch with its working-class roots, and in the profusion of cash-only dining establishments you still hear the city’s peculiar brand of Quebecois French. Biddeford may appear to have had its working spirit crushed, yet I have never lived anywhere that has so much transformative potential.
I live here because I believe. To me, each of Main Street’s vacant storefronts — former clothing stores, restaurants, and gift shops — is an entrepreneurial possibility. Every empty loft or apartment is an opportunity for a new generation to discover this community.
I love Biddeford most in the innately hopeful light of early morning. The granite-edged sidewalks are usually empty but for a couple of dedicated joggers and the city-employed street-sweeping duo, Paul and Mr. Farley. At the intersection where Main Street meets the mills, the brick walls are radiant. The morning sun creates deep shadows and casts everything into contrast. Chiaroscuro, the Italians call it: works of art with strong distinction between light and dark.
It used to be that Mike, the WestPoint Home security guard, would wave to me from the main entrance to the mills. Back in June, Mike — whose key ring was as thick as his beard — celebrated thirty years working in the mills. He started in his early twenties and he knows every nook and cranny of the acres of mill buildings. When WestPoint Home was sold this summer and Mike was laid off, the local pipefitters union lost its last member.
I don’t see Mike at the gate anymore. But I look to where he used to stand, and I feel the obligation to carry on.